Breaking church-state news in Oregon

"Stop the presses!" I joked three months ago when I critiqued a USA Today story on the years-old practice of churches renting public school facilities on Sundays. Now a new version of this breaking news story has made the front page — above the fold, no less — of The Oregonian, Oregon's leading newspaper:

MILWAUKIE – Pastor Jeff Jacob begins his weekly services on the Alder Creek Middle School's auditorium stage, sometimes next to a podium emblazoned with a picture of the school mascot. After a rock band encourages the audience to sway to worship songs, Jacob launches into his sermon, exploring "who Jesus really is."

Every Sunday, Alder Creek Middle School near Milwaukie essentially transforms into the Southlake Two Church, a scene that plays out weekly in dozens of schools across Oregon and many more across the country.

That bothers Gladstone resident Wilford Bearden, who received a flier last month inviting him to attend church services at the public school. "I don't think it's something that schools should be doing," said Bearden, who approached the district to complain. "I think the general public would probably be appalled as I am that my tax dollars are promoting religion."

But although Bearden and others believe school-based churches violate the Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state, courts have generally found the practice to be legal. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that as long as districts are renting out spaces to outside organizations, it would be discriminatory to ban religious groups.

The story prompted a GetReligion reader named Ken to complain:

You'd think from the story's placement that this must be a huge, new, important issue, but it covers no new ground and, in my opinion, tries to create an issue out of a non-issue.

The story, less than 800 words, occupied the Portland newspaper's prime real estate on Monday morning. Monday is typically the easiest day of the week for a reporter to land a nice feature or trend piece on Page 1, given that Sunday is usually a slow breaking news day. Even by those standards, however, I'd have to say Ken is on to something with his complaint about this particular story.

Ken's specific concerns about The Oregonian's story (and your GetReligionistas love it when observant readers can help us write our critiques!):

1. It seems ginned up to create a controversy that otherwise would not exist.

In general, I'm reluctant to climb inside reporters' (and editors') heads and try to determine motives. At the same time, journalism often gravitates, by its very nature, to controversy. But what does seem clear after reading this story is that there is no strong local, timely news peg.

One complaining citizen is quoted voicing his concerns about his tax dollars promoting religion (despite the story itself reporting that the churches actually are pumping money into the school coffers). It's unclear how the citizen voiced his complaint. Did he bring up the issue at a school board meeting? Did the newspaper approach him? Did he take any kind of formal action to raise his objection?

2. It gives no context as far as how long this has been going on, or how significant it is that 51 schools in the top 10 districts do a rental.

Exactly. Moreover, the story provides no actual numerical data to back up its headline, which claims "More schools host church services as controversy lingers."

3. It ignores its own comment about the Supreme Court's approval of this practice in the hopes of creating the appearance of "constitutional questions."

The reporter does cite an ongoing New York case (read tmatt's Scripps column from a few months ago for much more insight and understanding of the church-state issues involved).

As for creating "constitutional questions," The Oregonian quotes two "expert" sources — both with concerns about the practice of schools renting churches:

Charles Hinkle, an attorney specializing in constitutional law, says Oregon's constitution -- which clearly bans state money subsidizing religious groups -- allows churches to temporarily rent school buildings. But he says districts should be concerned about religious organizations that seem to have no exit strategy. "You are, at that point, supporting a church with your facility, even if you're getting full rental value," he said.

Beyond the financial aspect, Jan Carson, associate director of the Portland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, worries about "mixed messages" being sent, particularly to young children. Because Christian churches make up the vast majority of services within schools, she joins some judges who say it may appear that schools or districts condone only certain types of religion.

"Is some sort of favoritism being created intentionally or unintentionally?" Carson asked.

How many religious-liberty attorneys who defend the equal-access rights of churches are quoted? That would be none.

My general reaction to this story?

It's pretty simple: What Ken said.

Church and state image via Shutterstock.

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